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Congress zeroing in on $6 billion to $8 billion coronavirus aid package

Vice President Mike Pence peaks during a news conference with President Donald Trump and members of the Coronavirus Task Force at the White House in Washington D.C., on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
February 28, 2020

Amid growing concerns about both the economic and health impacts of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, appropriators are rushing to draft an emergency spending package that could provide upward of $6 billion in aid.

House and Senate appropriators are discussing a package in the range of $6 billion to $8 billion with the aim of getting it on the House floor as early as the middle of next week, several people familiar with the deliberations said.

The funds would go to the Departments of Health and Human Services, State, Homeland Security and Defense and possibly other agencies to fight the deadly COVID-19 disease, which has killed thousands worldwide and sent global stock markets into a tailspin this week.

The sources familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition they not be identified so they could speak freely, said the legislation would provide some flexibility in spending the funds, similar to the $5.4 billion Ebola virus aid package enacted in late 2014.

The 2014 law provided broad transfer authority to HHS, for instance, enabling officials to shift funds among the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other accounts in consultation with the Office of Management and Budget. The measure required the administration to provide 10 days’ notice to the House and Senate Appropriations committees before carrying out such transfers.

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The discussions are focused on a range partway between figures floated by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer earlier this week. It means lawmakers are looking at a package roughly comparable to appropriations enacted in the mid-to-late 2000s to contain and treat birdand swine flu outbreaks. The talks are also centered around levels well above the $2.5 billion initially sought by the White House — only half of which was new funding.

Providing the much larger sums being discussed on Capitol Hill would alleviate concerns expressed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about raiding funds previously appropriated for other purposes.

For example, the White House wants to take $37 million from state grants to help low-income people pay heating and cooling bills and weatherize their homes. Senate Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine and the panel’s top Democrat, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, said diverting funds “that people depend on in the middle of winter is not the right approach.”

President Donald Trump said Wednesday night at a rare White House press briefing that he would accept whatever funding level Congress deems appropriate.

It wasn’t yet clear how the COVID-19 supplemental would deal with a Democratic demand to keep prices down for vaccines currently under development. HHS Secretary Alex Azar and top Capitol Hill Republicans said this week that price-gouging fears are unfounded, citing earlier outbreaks, and that drug pricing should be dealt with in separate legislation that’s been in the works since last year.

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© 2020 CQ-Roll Call

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